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Playoff chase energizes Walton

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With the Northeast Conference champion set to appear in the FCS playoffs for the first time this season, 74-year-old Robert Morris football coach Joe Walton has too enticing a goal to consider retiring.

"I keep waiting for Joe Paterno to retire," JoeWa says of JoePa with a laugh, "and then I'll have to start thinking about it. I'm a young guy compared to Joe (Paterno is 83)."

What never gets old is championship football, and the NEC winner (like the Big South Conference winner) will earn its first automatic bid to the expanded, 20-team playoffs. Robert Morris will enter the season as the NEC's most energized team after it overcame an 0-6 start by winning its final five games last season.

"We had our opportunities at the beginning of the year, but we were still making those silly mistakes that young people will make," Walton said. "The biggest difference in the first half and the second half was we made fewer mistakes and played more solid football. So the key this year I think is to get off to a good start and play as well as can early in the season."

Joe Walton has a 96-67-1 (.588) record at RMU.
A lot will be different at the start of the season. Jeff Sinclair will be the starting quarterback, after he opened last season third on the depth chart behind two seniors. Sinclair, then a freshman, went 5-2 as the starter once he took over.

In addition, the many sophomores and juniors who played key roles are all grown up, with the Colonials returning 19 starters - 10 on offense, seven on defense and two kickers. All but Sinclair is a junior or senior.

The experience should put RMU in the title chase along with the likes of defending champion Central Connecticut State, Albany, Wagner and Monmouth - the final three of whom the Colonials beat to end their 2009 season. The return of so many veterans allowed Walton and his staff to approach spring practices with a more progressive approach this year.

"I think that's a fair statement, yes," he said. "We'll continue to teach, we'll continue to work on the things that we do best. But certainly having some veteran players makes it a lot more efficient as you start. The other thing that it does is if you have any freshmen coming in that have some talent and might be able to help us, they're going to learn faster being around guys that have had some experience of doing it.

"For the last couple years, we've been playing a lot of young players. For one reason or another, we didn't have very strong senior classes the last couple years."

It's been 10 years since RMU last won an NEC title, when it completed a run of five straight crowns from 1996-2000. Walton, the longtime former NFL coach, including the 1983-89 seasons as the New York Jets' head coach, has been with the Colonials every step of the way, starting the program in 1993 and leading it onto the field one year later. He has a 96-67-1 (.588) record at RMU entering this season.

Walton has adjusted his pro-style offense with Sinclair, allowing him to use his legs to beat opponents and not just sit in the pocket. Sinclair threw for nine touchdowns and ran for three as a freshman. The Colonials committed only four turnovers during their season-ending winning streak, compared to 17 in their season-opening losing streak.

"I was very excited about (him) and had thought about redshirting him after our start, the way we went," Walton said of Sinclair. "I decided we're going to let this kid play. It turned out to be the right decision, maybe a little too late [laughing]. We certainly got him going and he got some good experience and helped us be a better football team at the end of the year."

Last season, the NEC was so deep with senior running backs that 5-foot-8, 170- pound Myles Russ rushed for 1,059 yards as a junior but finished only fourth in the conference, and didn't earn All-NEC first- or second-team honors. This season, he is the conference's top returning rusher and will operate behind five returning starting linemen, including hulking tackles Carlos Andrade and Corey Konycki, who have made 30 career starts each. Tight end Shadrae King also returns upfront.

Defensively, RMU has been solid in recent seasons. Cornerback Rolf Bathold and safety Michael Landers made the All-NEC second team as juniors, and Alex DiMichele and Elias Navarro, the starting inside linebackers in the 3-4, are playmakers. The Colonials allowed only 7.2 points per game in their final five last season - 19 less than what they averaged in their first six games.

All-NEC first-team kicker Garrett Clawson and second-team punter Nick Schirtzinger also return as seniors.

"We feel we've made progress the last couple years, not as much as you'd like to," Walton said. "But we're getting the feeling that the program is building back up to what we want it to be. I think everybody is excited, but so are all the other teams in the conference. Every year is different. Who will emerge as the stronger teams, you never know.

"I think all the teams are going to be excited about (the NEC playoff bid) It's no different than anything else. We play this game to win and we play to win championships."

Robert Morris opens the season at Dayton on Sept. 4. The Colonials play their first NEC game one week later at Sacred Heart.

AROUND THE FCS

- One-time Howard University football player Tony Mack will take over as mayor of Trenton, N.J., on July 1. Mack played on the Bison's 1987 MEAC championship squad. Also a wrestler and baseball player, he is one of only two three-sport athletes at Howard in the past 25 years.

- Six FCS coaches are participating this week in the 2010 Expert Coaches Football Academy in Anaheim, Calif., in conjunction with the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics convention. The academy, instituted in 2004, is an effort to assist minority coaches with career advancement, networking and exposure opportunities at NCAA colleges and universities. Attending from FCS schools are Prairie View A&M offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Michael Bryant II and tight ends coach Roy Jones, Harvard defensive line coach Carlton Hall, Savannah State associate head coach Eddie Johnson, The Citadel running backs coach Everette Sands and Monmouth offensive coordinator Scott Van Zile.

- Stephen F. Austin's expected Top 10 squad has a couple position changes among its returning starters. The Lumberjacks, who finished 10-3 last season, have moved Kenneth Charles from defensive tackle to defensive end and Andre Banks, last year's Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year, from cornerback to safety.

- Outside linebacker John Jones was ruled academically ineligible at Tennessee State. The transfer from the University of Florida made the Ohio Valley Conference All-Newcomer Team and earned conference second-team honors in his only season with the Tigers last fall. He made a team-high 70 tackles, including 8.5 for loss.

- The basketball-led Summit League is exploring the possibility of adding football, commissioner Tom Douple said. The 10-team conference has four schools that sponsor football: North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Western Illinois, which play in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and Southern Utah, which plays in the Great West Conference. South Dakota, which plays football in the Great West Conference, will join the Summit League as its 11th member in the 2011-12 school year. The league also has announced it will consider adding North Dakota as a 12th member. The Fighting Sioux, whose nickname will be changed in the future, also play football in the Great West Conference.

- Northern Arizona University recently signed a three-year contract extension to remain as the summer training site for the Arizona Cardinals. It's a partnership that began in 1988. The other FCS-NFL matches for training sites are Albany (New York Giants), Wofford (Carolina Panthers) and Lehigh (Philadelphia Eagles).

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter at
http://twitter.com/CraigHaley.

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